HomeAboutHistory of project

History of project

Founded in 2018, this digital project began as an outcrop of my research and writing on the sculptor, Meta Warrick Fuller (1877-1968). In 1913, she created a figural plaster sculpture, Emancipation (on the left), at the National Emancipation Exposition--a fair to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1999 through a collaborative effort between the National Center of Afro-American Artists, the Museum of Afro-American History, and the City of Boston, a full-size bronze cast from the plaster was placed in the Harriet Tubman Park in the South End of Boston alongside Fern Cunningham's Step on Board memorial to Tubman (on the right).

Fuller and Cunningham's sculptures led me to ask what other contemporary monuments to slavery might exist in the public spaces of American cities and towns. I began my research with Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad as she was figured and celebrated in numerous monuments in the Northeast. Invited to write for the exhibition catalog, Tell It With Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Augustus Saint-Gaudens' Shaw Memorial (2013), I proceeded to examine recent memorials to United States Colored Troops (USCT), created in honor of Black men's service in the Union Army during the American Civil War. At about the same time as I began researching the USCT, I also became interested in cemeteries dedicated to enslaved and free persons and their transformation into reclaimed sites of mourning and commemoration.

Once I realized the number of monuments that existed and became aware of newly commissioned commemorative works, I created a public digital repository on Omeka. The monuments, memorials, and sites of slavery point to the way artists and communities are in conversation about and memorializing the slave past.

Why slavery and monuments?

This project came into being amid a growing and expansive conversation about slavery, memory, and commemoration in the early twenty-first century. The 200th anniversary of the abolishment of slavery in England in 2007 brought the issue of the slave past to the foreground in exhibitions, performances, and monument building. An international conversation began over the memory of slavery with the United Nations establishing March 25 as the "International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade."

In this context, I wrote a short essay for a special issue on sculpture for the journal American Art in 2010. Entitled "Slavery and Its Memory in Public Monuments," I traced the historic difficulties of commemorating slavery in three-dimensional form and I argued that the slave past was "unreconciled and painful part" of U.S. history, an unsettling and unsettled history. Despite the shame often associated with slavery in the United States, I observed that contemporary sculptors and designers along with communities were wrestling with remembrance and memorialization of slavery through the monument landscape.

As I continued my research, two significant events occurred:

Rodney Leon, "Ark of Return": The Permanent Memorial at the United Nations in Honour of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, 2015, United Nation Headquarters, New York, New York. Photo by Renée Ater.

As one artist recently commented, this digital repository is a counter-archive to the well-documented monument landscape in the United States. In this digital space, the commemorative works reveal the diverse ways that artists and communities are dealing with the hard histories of slavery and choosing to remember and memorialize it.

Renée Ater, March 2024